Image: The Woodlands’ political “establishment” has begun to fight back against the pro-incorporation work of the Woodlands Township Board of Directors.
The Woodlands, February 8 – In the first major pushback against incorporation of The Woodlands, about four dozen members of the political “establishment” submitted an “Open Letter” to the Woodlands Township Board of Directors on January 28, 2019, in which they questioned the transparency of the incorporation process, the financial viability of incorporation, and the objectivity of consulting studies to date.
Many prominent individuals who have run for the Township Board in past elections appear as signatories on the letter, including three candidates who ran as the pro-developer slate in the 2016 General Election for the Township Board: Mike Bass, Chris Grice, and Stuart Schroeder.
The letter is very well written and very worth reading regardless of your proclivity for or against incorporation of The Woodlands, because it does identify many important issues which the citizens of The Woodlands should consider as this process proceeds. The Golden Hammer has invited a response.
The entire letter follows:
January 28, 2019
The Woodlands Township Board of Directors C/O Don Norrell
President and General Manager
The Woodlands Township
2801 Technology Forest Blvd. The Woodlands, TX 77381
This is an Open Letter from the Undersigned Woodlands Residents to The Township Board and our community. The views represented herein are our own views and are not intended to represent the views of any organization with which we may be associated. We respect and appreciate the Township Board of Directors’ effort and commitment to evaluate the potential benefits, pitfalls, and costs of becoming an incorporated city.
One of the reasons we all moved here was out of respect for Mr. Mitchell’s vision and plans for this great community where one can live, work, play and learn. Our hearts belong to The Woodlands, and our hope is that Mr. Mitchell’s vision and legacy will continue to be carried forward as the Township Board plans for the growth and governance of this unique and special community. We are very interested in understanding matters related to future incorporation of The Woodlands and it is for that reason we present this letter and our suggestions to The Township Board. We also write out of deep concern about how the incorporation planning process appears to have unfolded over the last several months.
Every member of the Township Board of Directors has pledged that the study process would be accessible, transparent, responsive and truthful. We do not doubt this commitment. In fact, we couldn’t agree more with Township Director Dr. Ann Snyder when she said at the September 25th public forum that “we have one time to do it right… to ensure that we have all the information available to make the best choices.” It is our faith in that commitment that compels us to approach you with our concerns:
The information presented at incorporation planning meetings and shared on the prior Matrix website has been difficult for Residents to follow and understand.
o Multiple versions of the supporting sub studies have been provided with no explanation of how one version has been modified from the previous versions.
o Information presented at Township Planning Meetings were not posted to the Matrix web site on a timely basis.
o Discussions at the planning meetings suffer from poor sound quality making comments hard to hear and the discussion hard to follow.
o During discussions scheduled by the Consultants with the Village Associations, the Consultants could not fully answer the questions posed by the Village Residents.
Throughout this process, Board members have cited the limitations of the Township structure regarding disaster relief and road planning as key reasons to move forward with the current study. Yet the consulting firms have failed to provide the necessary justification to substantiate how incorporation would benefit Residents regarding these important issues. The Board should articulate a more compelling rational for becoming a City within the next 10-years.
- Similarly, the Board and Consultants have confused Residents as to the risk of impending annexation. The Board is clearly aware, that as long as The Township meets its contractual obligations, The Township is not subject to annexation by Houston or Conroe until after November 16, 2057. Nor is The Township subject to annexation by any other adjacent city. The Board and the Consultants should make this fact abundantly clear.
- Likewise, the Consultants have failed to provide clear, concise information regarding other critical issues, regarding financial projections, the cost impact on users from any imposition of franchise fees, the future of covenant enforcement, and road maintenance obligations. In some cases, the information included in the “Final” Sub Studies is inaccurate or incomplete. For example, the so-called “Final “Law Enforcement Study (November 28, 2018) includes an option (Option 1) to continue with the current MCSO contract when it is known by the Board that this option is not viable upon Incorporation. In addition, the cost of the recommended Hybrid Option (Option 3) is significantly lower than the cost of any comparable peer city. In this case, it appears the focus was more on selecting the lowest cost option, rather than one best for the community in the long term.
- Even though questions from citizens have been strongly encouraged since the process began, answers to those questions have not been adequately communicated.
- The Board has professed on several occasions that incorporation will provide more control over the future of our community. Yet several of the options presented by the Consultants as to how the new city might operate are based on assumptions that continue to rely on the use of County resources to meet our road maintenance and law enforcement needs. These assumptions also appear to understate the initial cost of incorporation, and the first-year property tax rate, thus, deferring such cost to future years. If we incorporate, we are concerned about the continuing over reliance on the County and the potential understatement of the initial cost to incorporate
- The Board recently announced the early termination of Matrix Consulting Group, prior to the completion of their contract obligations. Matrix was selected by the Board as the lead consultant and given the primary responsibility for providing the data upon which the financial model was to be based. If the premature termination of the Matrix Consulting Group reflects the Board’s lack of confidence in Matrix’s ability to complete the study and carry out the terms of its contract (a concern we share), how can we trust the data and work product the company provided? Moreover, in December, an Open Records request was made by the Villager and a Resident to obtain the Matrix financial projections and any applicable legal opinions. Although this information was presented in the November 28 public session, the Board would not release such public information without first seeking the opinion of the Attorney General. The information was finally released on January 25. But why was it so difficult to obtain this information in the first place? Where is the transparency?
In summary, the complicated nature of the study and an apparent rush to complete it has left us frustrated and confused, creating far more questions than answers.
We have only one opportunity to get this right. If the citizens of The Woodlands were to choose to incorporate, there is no turning back, and Texas’ only township will be gone forever. A decision of this gravity must be based on clearly explained data and facts, so that every member of this community who casts a vote is educated and confident in his or her decision. The process must be commensurate with what is at stake. The process led by Matrix Consulting Group has obviously fallen short of that standard because their contract was terminated prior to the completion of their duties and contractual obligations.
As the Board considers its next steps, we respectfully request the following:
- Improve the process and involve more community leaders in the process. The incorporation study
process has moved forward so fast, it has left Residents behind and confused. Give the community an opportunity to help set the course and priorities for the research, not just respond to findings. Take the time to share the data and assumptions contained within each of the Sub Study detailed reports and supporting legal opinions. Please allow the community to fully understand one issue before rushing onto the next. When The Woodlands considered the formation of The Township and approval of the Houston/Conroe Regional Participation Agreements, a broad coalition of community and business leaders was formed to provide advice and lead this very significant change. A similar approach would be helpful in this case.
- Provide clear business and legal justification for study findings to give the community faith and confidence in the Board’s recommendations. The issues we are evaluating require expert, well founded information and opinions to ensure the decisions we make are based on fact and what is best for our community over the long term. Board Members often make assertions as if they were fact without supporting their assertions with more expert rationale. There is too much hanging in the balance to not have this important clarity.
- Recommit to transparency. While it may require more time, more meetings, and more explanations, the Residents of The Woodlands must have faith in the process and the data the Board is using to make its recommendations. The website and responses to questions provided by Matrix Consulting were constructed in a way that seemed far more about checking boxes and moving on to the next step than educating the community.
We give credit to The Township for recently restoring access to the study results produced to date through implementing a new web site. We believe the new web site is a definite improvement over the old Matrix web site. However, the new web site still suffers from the same shortcomings as the old Matrix web site- incomplete answers to questions, redundant and often conflicting Sub Study information and conclusions, abundance of detail data but little understandable key information, etc.
It is unreasonable to expect Residents to wade through thousands of pages of study material to find answers to the most critical incorporation issues and options. Residents should be provided more concise information about the various options being considered for each area, such as Law Enforcement and Road Maintenance, the pros and cons of each and the short- and long-term financial implications of each option. We ask that you continue to work to simplify the information on the web site, commit to completely answering questions, and provide those incorporation study findings and assumptions endorsed by the Board, including all legal opinions and financial projections prepared to date.
In addition, please avoid using Executive Sessions during your Planning Meetings. We can envision no incorporation subject that should not be discussed in public where Residents may also be engaged. Nor should any legal opinion received not be made public and available on the web site. The Board has this prerogative. Once again, where is the transparency?
- Regarding any incorporation financial projections and estimated Property Tax rates, please provide a conservative, “worse case” scenario. To make an informed decision, the Residents need a long term, 10-year outlook as to the probable cost of incorporation and estimated property tax rates. Decisions and assumptions made by the current Township Board will not be binding on future City Councils. In addition, this task is very complex, made more so by the longer time frame required to be comfortable in making any decision. We believe a conservative, worse case estimate of the cost of incorporation, based on the following assumptions at a minimum, should be provided along with any “best case” estimate:
- A Franchise Fee should not be imposed by a future City Council. This “pseudo tax” will just be an additional cost to our Residents and Businesses
- Our own Police Department should be created, and The Township will eventually cease any reliance on MCSO. It is not known whether the continued reliance on MCSO can be sustained over the long term. All other cities in Texas have their own Police Force. If we wish to have more control over our destiny by incorporating, the Board should include our own Police Force in the financial projections.
- A more conservative estimate of the cost to sustain our road should be included in any projections:
- A proper Public Works department should be staffed and funded to make sure our roads are maintained. It is not certain that contracting our minor road maintenance across four County Commissioners will work effectively. The new City Council should have the option to bring such work in house.
- The estimate for rebuilding our roads should be based on a more conservative, realistic useful life. As outlined in the Pavement Study, the new City will eventually need to reconstruct our aging roads. The study quantified the cost of this effort. However, the Engineers assumed the funding needed can amortized over a 100-year useful life. Such a life is considered by other experts to be optimistic, especially for our more heavily used connector roads and thoroughfares.
- An allowance for the cost of the eventual road way expansion required to keep pace with growth and the eventual buildout of The Woodlands should be included in the projections. The South County Mobility Study estimated this roadway expansion would cost over $100 million over the next ten years.
Thank you again for the time you have dedicated to this critical task. We deeply appreciate your dedication to our community and its future. If you would like to discuss any aspect of this letter or our recommendations, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.
WE AUTHORIZE THE USE OF OUR NAME AS OUR PROFORMA SIGNATURE TO THIS LETTER:
Jennifer Majors Baca
Edmund W. Chapman
Lorena Perez McGill